“I’m trying to reach toward a picture that’s totally emotional, not narrative or intellectual, where an audience walks out and they can’t say anything but what they feel.”–Robert Altman (quoted in David Sterritt’s Criterion Collection essay)
DIRECTED BY: Robert Altman
PLOT: A young girl named Pinky begins working at a spa in California, where she eventually becomes roommates with her idol, Millie, who is a few years older. Millie believes herself to be popular, inviting people over for dinner parties and out on dates, but in reality nearly everyone avoids her except for Pinky. Then, after a near-fatal accident, Pinky undergoes a radical personality change…
- Robert Altman conceived the picture after a dream he had while his wife was hospitalized: he dreamed the title of the film, the location, that it involved personality theft, and that it would star Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek.
- 3 Women was made without a traditional screenplay. Instead, together with writer Patricia Resnick, Altman devised a 50 page treatment. The movie was then shot in sequence, with Altman writing out the next day’s scenes the night before, and the actors improvising much of the dialogue. Duvall wrote all of the diary entries herself.
- The murals were painted by an otherwise nearly unknown hippie artist working under the name “Bodhi Wind.”
- Duvall’s performance won her a Best Actress nod at the Cannes Film Festival.
- The movie was not available on home video in any form until 2004 due to the distributors’ failure to negotiate rights for Gerald Busby’s avant-garde musical score.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The paintings that decorate the swimming pool walls: strange creatures with scaly legs and baboon faces, engaged in bizarre, violent courting rituals. A male stands with his arms outstretched and his stout penis hanging proudly between his legs while females scatter, looking over their shoulders and baring their fangs at him. Shots of these two murals, which inside the movie’s reality are painted by Janice Rule’s character, occur over and over throughout the film, including over the opening and closing credits. Oddly enough, the shot most associated with 3 Women—the one that illustrates the DVD cover and accompanies most reviews—doesn’t even occur in the film. The photograph of Sissy Spacek entwined in Shelly Duval’s arms as they recline against a fresco depicting one simian lizard creature strangling another was a promotional photo. 3 Women is that kind of movie: the type that’s best represented by something lying outside of its own boundaries.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: 3 Women is based on an uneasy dream suffered by Robert Altman, and incredible performances by Sissy Spacek and (especially) Shelly Duvall turn it into a collaborative dream. Although most of the movie is naturalistic, with nothing happening that could not quite happen in our reality, there is nonetheless a dreadful sense of illusoriness, as if we’re seeing events through a gauze.